CUNNINGHAM: Developing Common Core standards

CJ-0813-COL-Cunnigham-MUGAs stated last week, we learned that state departments of education, in Mississippi, the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) provides teachers with lists of standards, the information, skills and concepts students should know by the end of the year. Teachers develop the curriculum, or the lessons, homework, field trips, and projects that help students learn those standards. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is the most recent development in a long history of standards in education.

There is a lot of misinformation running rampant on the internet these days about the “Common Core,” where it came from, who wrote it and what it dictates. As a math consultant for a state level department of education, I have some insight that may help ease some worries as the children are buying new backpacks, notebooks and pencils and heading back to school to face these new standards.

In spring and summer 2009 we, the consultants in the math department, started hearing that the organization “Achieve” ( was starting an initiative to create standards that could be a model for national standards, particularly focusing on high school level work. Achieve pulled together the National Governor’s Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO – the organization for state superintendents) to back the development of standards for every grade, kindergarten through twelfth grade, that could be presented to state level Boards of Education for adoption.

With the backing of the governors and the state school superintendents, the standards writing kicked into high gear. Two panels were created, one for language arts and one for math. These panels included people who are in the national education circles, university level researchers and state level math and language arts people.

The panels were charged with creating standards that did not sprinkle little bits of information on a subject over a bunch of grades, the “inch deep and a mile wide” complaint. They were to create “clumps” of standards so students could study a topic in depth. They also were to only include the “most important” ideas, or concepts for each content area.

Some things students need to learn, like the reading of a thermometer, don’t show up in the standards. In this example this skill is fairly easily taught and not a “big idea” of math. Lastly, the panel was to use “learning trajectories” to determine which standards were to go in what grade level.

Trajectories are fairly new to education and they show what ideas children can learn at certain ages. Research in education is starting to show how concepts build and develop over time. As an example, children start learning about multiplication and division as “fair shares” in first and second grades. Then in third grade they really develop the ideas of equal sized groups and learn how to model single digit multiplication and division with math blocks and in pictures. Then in fourth grade they start using larger numbers and more mathematically relevant diagrams. By fifth grade they need to master and become fluent with formal calculations for long multiplication and division. In this case, the research suggests that although third graders may be able to use formal calculation procedures, it does not help them understand the action of multiplication or division. So, a new set of standards needed to respect what researchers are finding out about how kids learn, and at what rate.

The CCSS writing panels put together an initial draft, and sent it out to key organizations, certain researchers, and selected state level departments of education. These organizations represented different types of professionals who have stakes in the development of standards, teachers, researchers, and administrators.

In my role as a state level math consultant, I was given the copy of the standards for elementary school. I was to keep it under lock and key, and not leave the building with it. My focus was on the kindergarten, first and second grades, and I wrote up my concerns, passed them on to my supervisor, who passed it up the chain and back to the writing panel. This process happened in December, February and April.

After the February review, the panel sent the drafts out to a wider audience. Since I was involved with the math development, that is the experience I can explain, but it was the same for language arts and for standards through high school. There were several standards for the elementary math content that we as consultants, and others that I knew had serious concerns about. One issue had to do with early counting issues in kindergarten and first grades, and the other was about the development of fractions concepts in kindergarten through fifth grades. A group of researchers, curriculum writers, and university faculty who are nationally known in the math world wrote a letter regarding these concerns. It made the rounds and many people signed it before it went back to the writing panel.

When the April draft was send to me, again under lock and key, I was pleased to see that the counting issue was revised to match our concerns exactly. The fractions issues seemed to have met a compromise. Although multiplication and division of fractions remained in fifth grade, the concepts that lead up to understanding are more spread out into third and fourth grades. And although kindergarten and first do not have strong fraction concept standards, a second grade standard was written and included as a part of the geometry content cluster.

The organization of the standards was another area where revision greatly improved the standards. The drafts increased the clarity of the “big ideas” that are now identified with the heading titles. Remember the “mile wide and inch deep” complaint about historic standard sets? Well, these clusters are to help teachers see how the standards within these big ideas fit together and should be taught together to build a deeper understanding of the concept.

So, the Common Core State Standards were written by researchers and national experts in the fields of language arts and math. They are based on the research that has been conducted in the last decade or two and more educators were able to review and offer feedback to the authors as a part of the process. The Common Core State Standards are only written for math and language arts/reading. There are no science or social studies standards as a part of this project.


Dr. Renee Cunningham, Ed.D, is Assistant Professor of Mathematics Education at the University of Mississippi. She earned her Doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.


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